71 Allie McGhee


Born Charleston, WV, 1941 / BA, Eastern Michigan University / Lives in Detroit

Allie McGhee is a seven-day-a-week, 360 plus-days-a-year abstract artist. He has, from early afternoon until the waning of natural light in the evening, followed this blue-collar schedule for decades. McGhee is also an experimenter. He is as intellectually and artistically restless as liquid in porous soil. The range of his curiosity and breadth of inquiry is all encompassing. New directions pop up like spring flowers.

McGhee long ago gave up representational storytelling in favor of a jazz-like modal subversion of the pictorial. Music is an apt metaphor for his methodology. Miles Davis, one of the artist’s heroes and a restless explorer of musical forms, gave up the conventional song form in favor of improvisational sound clusters. The content of a composition was no longer just variations on a melody in major and minor scales, but an embodiment of the feelings evoked by the process of playing itself. Viewers of McGhee’s finished work similarly experience the visceral nature of his creative process. In Red Spinner (2010), for instance, the vigorous stokes of blue, suggestive of water or sky, in tandem with the vibrating red oval evoke emanations of sounds vibrating across the water or across the cosmos.

Relief constructions, such as Floater and Similar Rhythm (both 2016) are the serendipitous products of his encyclopedic mastery and undermining of the techniques, intentions, and traditions of visual as well as musical world art. Although unbound by the Euro-Western rules of art making, his process, while spontaneous, is not haphazard. The crumpled folds and furrows of these two reliefs, aided and abetted by singing colors and a sensual S curve in the latter, and the staccato blue-black palette of the former, are at once chromatic and aural. One senses in McGhee’s visual tunes, among others, Duke Ellington’s gestural sweeps, Charles Mingus’s mercurial tempo shifts, Delta blues slurs, and molten African rhythmic riffs.

Other conventions he abandoned were the brush as a means of applying paint and, periodically, a framed canvas as his primary surface. Rather, McGhee has poured, spattered, scrubbed, and mopped, fashioning a DIY inventory of notched, hard-edged implements to spread and flow pigment onto window shades, fiberglass, wallpaper, cardboard, and almost any surface to which paint will adhere. He allows his intuition and the natural viscosities and properties of materials to determine their own pictorial destiny.

For a period, McGhee’s utilitarian, paint-mixing sticks became the objets-d’art themselves. The humble, multicolored acrylic and enamel-encrusted sticks, attached to each other in dazzling structural compositions, are then wall mounted to maximum effect. Ring of Fire (2006), for example, comprised of a crisscrossing assemblage of sticks arranged in a circle, alludes to the unifying symbol often invoked in the artist’s vocabulary; Self Portrait (2007), a less formal arrangement of sticks, seemingly hurriedly composed, is as gnarly as Ring is refined.

Lately, McGhee has come full circle and returned to the human figure. It never entirely vanished from the artist’s work, but was often so highly symbolized as not to be apparent unless searched for. These recent iterations are acrylic on paper studies of the African-American female form. They are voluptuous, uncorseted, unshamed, and free from the anorexic strictures of Western notions of beauty. Like all of McGhee’s art, their images are shaped at the moment of conception. As muses and prompters of memory, one senses both their physicality and the wonder of their creation. Two of these 2017 images are studies in contrast, utilizing sharply hued backgrounds to highlight the figure-filling forms. Swimmer is a study in graceful fluidity with just a dash of blue to establish locale, whereas Hush depicts a figure at once authoritarian–note her emphatically pointing finger–and playful.

Like all else that happens in his work/play space, each time McGhee climbs the stairs to his studio overlooking the Detroit River and Belle Isle, he is in search of new ways not to make art as he did the day before. Whether the day’s results are abstract, figurative, or somewhere in between, they are sure to embody the cyclic nature of his ever evolving creative practice. After all, as the artist succinctly observes, “We are visible in all forms of nature.”

Bill Harris, March 2017

Copyright Essay’d 2017